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Fifty Years of “The Godfather”

It has been 50 years since The Godfather was widely released in the United States on March 24, 1972.

What makes The Godfather and The Godfather Part II such revered films that are regularly considered the greatest films ever made? In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful, Edmund Burke charted a dualistic tension in the aesthetic nature of man. Likewise, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Friedrich Schiller argued that humans found freedom and joy in aesthetic experience. No one can doubt that the first two Godfather films are pristine aesthetic experiences, two tours de force in the indulgence of man’s aesthetic ecstasy and euphoric catharsis.

Romanticism, the Sublime, and the Beautiful

While the sublime was a consideration of Longinus and Saint Augustine, the definitive philosophical exposé into the sublime—paired with its dialectical contrast, the beautiful—was written by Edmund Burke. Burke’s Enquiry, in many ways, laid the groundwork for the romantic movement that was soon to emerge. While Burke’s philosophical investigation also had antecedents in the passionate lyricism of Augustan age poetry, foremost among them Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, Burke’s outlining of the sublime and the beautiful had consequential effects on the future aesthetic movements that blossomed in the late 18th century and into the 19th century, culminating in the Sturm und Drang movement and romanticism.

Burke’s famous aesthetic treatise argued that man’s nature is divided between two aesthetic desires: one for the beautiful and the other for the sublime. Contrary to public perception, while Burke preferred the beautiful, he did not wish to eradicate the sublime. Instead, he sought to preserve the experience of the sublime because it is innate to human desire. Humans need a space, in other words, for the sublime experience that otherwise did not result in the destruction of the beautiful, gentle society in which we live and love.

Burke argued the beautiful was “distinguished from the sublime…[by] that quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love, or some passion similar to it.” Elaborating further, “[T]he beautiful is founded on mere positive pleasure, and excites in the soul that feeling which is called love.” Burke would also go on to famously say: “An appearance of delicacy, and even fragility, is almost essential to [beauty].” The beautiful, in Burke’s outlook, is defined by pleasantry, pleasure, and an aura of fragile delicacy which makes the beautiful appealing; we recognize the fragility in the beautiful, which calls forth our innate instincts for protection.

Dialectically paired against the beautiful is Burke’s elaboration on the sublime. The sublime, in contrast with the beautiful, produces “the strongest motion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The strongest emotional experiences produced by the sublime lead to awe, shock, and astonishment: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment.” Taken to its most violent extreme, the sublime leads to “wretchedness, misery, and death itself.” “Fear or terror, which is an apprehension of pain or death,” is essential to the nature of the sublime.

Another characteristic of Burke’s dichotomy between the sublime and the beautiful is the aesthetic of color which pervades our understanding of both aesthetic experiences. The beautiful has an air of light to it. The sublime, naturally, has an atmospheric darkness which sets the emotional mood toward a proclivity to that sense of “astonishment” and “wretchedness, misery, and death itself.” In light, there is a degree of peace and pleasure. In darkness, frenzy, disorienting worry, and fear (anxiety) dominate. 

From the Beautiful to the Sublime

The aesthetic trajectory of The Godfather moves from an oscillating tug of war between the beautiful and the sublime, especially in the first film, to a conquering and unsettling sublime in the sequel. 

In fact, the opening of The Godfather reveals this dynamism in its first few minutes. Bonasera, the undertaker who is appealing to Don Corleone for justice, is set in a dark background. He speaks of abuse and wants murder, “justice.” When the camera flips to Don Corleone, light flickers around him; there is a false atmosphere of holiness surrounding the Godfather. He will procure justice, but that justice has a dark side to it. Don Corleone, when introduced, is a man of moralism—morality, at least, within the closed and immoral system of the mafioso. After all, Don Corleone rejects the inevitable movement to drugs while the rest of the mafia families enthusiastically embrace Virgil Sollozzo’s narcotics scheme (and he rejects Bonasera’s desire for murder as “not justice”).

The scene with Bonasera then moves to the wedding of Connie and Carlo. Instead of the dark sublime and unsettling opening with Bonasera and Don Corleone, we immediately dive into joy, pleasantry, and love. A natural environment of sunlight and dancing, a band playing, and smiles soar through the yard. Serenading commences with the arrival of Johnny Fontaine, the film’s equivalent of Frank Sinatra. These contrasting images: dark “business” and light joy reveal the different hearts of the characters in The Godfather world.

Throughout The Godfather, the aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime, light and darkness, battle each other to their inevitable conclusion. Scenes filled with uncertainty, plotting, intimidation, and murder are shot in shadows and darkness. We are nervous watching such scenes; our hearts race. Burke’s sublime of strong emotions takes hold of us. Conversely, scenes of beauty, love, and happiness are shot in light, often natural environs: the wedding of Connie and Carlo and the wedding of Michael and Apollonia being the two most notable examples (they are also intensely social whereas the dark scenes are menacing and lacking in the joy of social crowds). Yet the sublime is not always presented to us in an immediate manner; the shocking death of Apollonia is one such example because there is nothing in the aesthetic atmosphere that necessarily puts us in the disposition of suspecting death. Very quickly the scene escalates as we begin to worry then, boom! 

The Godfather does not glamorize the mafia. Yet the film does romanticize the mob insofar that the story focuses on the Corleone family: the relationship between a father and his son and a quest for “justice” (or revenge). It is the story of a family, and what is more romantic than the family? There is an austere romanticism to Coppola’s film absent in many later iterations of the mobster film drama and epic (one thinks most notably of Martin Scorsese). When Bonasera demands justice, Don Corleone retorts that he seeks revenge. Their dialogue sets the stage for the entire film. Justice or revenge?  

One of the reasons why we root for Michael Corleone in the first film is because of the aesthetic dimension to his character. He is first introduced apart from the cloudy sublime that his father and brothers are part of. He is dressed in his military uniform. He is a war hero. He is romantically tied to Kay Adams, the all-American Protestant girl. His father even wants him to have a normal life. Michael is young, innocent, and handsome. He can escape the mafia life and leap into the “American Dream” (more on that later). His introduction, as mentioned, is in the air of pleasantry—the beautiful.

Don Corleone enters the film as a sort of fallen angel who still has a bit of his halo around him. He does not succumb to taking revenge on the men who beat Bonasera’s daughter. He flexes his moral fiber, within that closed system of mafia (im)morality, in rejecting Virgil Sollozzo. He is the man of peace at the meeting of the five families after the death of Sonny. Don Corleone is certainly a flawed man. (He is an undeniably great man in the Carlylean sense.) But we never consider him an immoral, or evil man. And we do not consider Michael, at least in the first film, an evil man either.

The attempted murder of Don Corleone and the slow dissolution of the Corleone family adds to their sympathetic representation. In the Don’s injuries, Michael’s flight to Sicily, and Sonny’s murder, the family that was so mesmerizing and powerful is revealed to be extremely fragile. And fragility is a defining trait of the beautiful according to Burke. A certain beauty, therefore, exudes from the Corleone family and its now-burdened existence as the family struggles for survival against its rivals which draws us again to it.

But in the Corleone struggle for survival turned justice, or, revenge, the beautiful starts to fade away (we will return to justice and revenge later). What remains of the beautiful is surrounded by a somber atmosphere. Michael’s reunion with Kay leaves us with a lot of doubt since we already know Michael’s romance with Apollonia. The flirting and smiling Michael at the beginning of the film is replaced with a hardened and serious Michael who “sounds like [his] father.” The funeral for Don Corleone, juxtaposed against the same naturalistic atmosphere of Connie and Carlo’s wedding with many of the same guests in attendance, is not joyous but sorrowful.

Power, Despotism, and the Sublime

In addition to strong emotional frenzy, unsettling worry, and pathological discontent, Burke also wrote that the sublime is manifested in despotism and power, “I know of nothing sublime which is not some modification of power.”

Michael’s pursuit of “justice” leads him down the path of power, and the path of power forsakes love. This is the paradox at the heart of The Godfather. Can love—Michael’s love for his father—become corrupted to the point of destruction? Many great thinkers in our history have thought so: Augustine, Shakespeare, and Richard Wagner, to name but a few. 

Increasingly, the beautiful—handsome—Michael who was introduced at Connie and Carlo’s wedding is metamorphosized into a hardened storm of steel. The beautiful recedes. The sublime takes over. Power is realized. Love dies. The angelic Michael introduced to us has become a fallen angel, Satan incarnate over the course of his character development.

The Godfather oscillates between the sublime and the beautiful but ends with the triumph of the sublime. Death roars across the screen. The film ends with Michael receiving the loyalty kisses of his henchmen. The last ray of light is shuddered when Al Neri shuts the door much to Kay’s consternation of having just been lied to. Darkness is the ambience that the film concludes with. 

The Godfather Part II opens in a sublime way. A funeral procession is disrupted with gunshots off screen. Vito’s father has been murdered before the film begins, and now his older brother—who has sworn revenge—is revealed to have just been killed. Vito’s mother is subsequently killed pleading to Don Ciccio to spare the weak child. Ciccio’s men then pursue Vito into the night. 

The one ray of hope is when Vito arrives in New York City with the blue skies and sunlight illuminating the Statue of Liberty in the background. But we know this is a false hope. The story of Vito Corleone’s rise to power is juxtaposed against Michael Corleone’s fall from grace. Whatever mystique surrounded Vito Corleone from the first film is stripped away in Robert De Niro’s chillingly astonishing performance of the young Godfather. Yet we still like him (more on this in a moment).

In Lake Tahoe, celebrating the first communion of Michael’s son, Anthony, the aesthetic atmosphere is nauseating for several reasons. Whereas the wedding of Carlo and Connie was undeniable beautiful and joyful, the first communion party in The Godfather Part II is glamorously gaudy. A paid band and pair of dancers undertake a choreographed performance that does not have a feeling of genuine joy to it but, rather, the mundane machinations of commodified subjugation. Whereas the Federal Bureau of Investigation was taking plate numbers in the first film, the police are on the Corleone payroll as they stand guard watching over the cars in the parking lot. Power defines the Lake Tahoe party whereas a genuine spirit of happiness and joy had governed Connie’s wedding. 

The reality of power is manifested for us in Michael’s meetings with Senator Pat Geary, Connie and her boyfriend Merle, and Frank Pentangeli. Once again, the scenes are shot with a brilliant, astonishing, darkness to them. Murky power politics and conflict exude across the scenes. This is not something beautiful but haunting and terrifying. The haunt and terror come from the manifestation of power.

If The Godfather portrayed the mafia world, especially through the Corleone family, in a partly romantic lens which swung violently between manifestations of the sublime and the beautiful, then The Godfather Part II presents the mafia world—singularly through the despotic rule of Michael and his conflict with Hyman Roth—in its stark and naked darkness without the veil of filial romanticism, which moved the first film. Power and revenge are the only spirits that govern the sequel, which explains why an aesthetic of darkness hangs over much of the film in a visibly more palpable manner than the first. The light, which hung over various parts of the first film giving it that romantic allure, is extinguished in the second. The dark, sublime, ambience—with its musical score too—overwhelms us whether in the Lake Tahoe compound, New York City, or Havana. Almost all of Michael’s scenes are shot with a darker ambience to them save for a few scenes in the sunlight of Havana.

The American Dream offered an escape out of the sublimely dark world of the mafia. The Godfather Part II exposes the American Dream as an illusion. Hyman Roth revels in the corruption of America. Michael’s bid for legitimacy is equally fraudulent. Even if he clears his name by legal maneuvering, we all know the truth is not what the government says. Moreover, during the infamous Senate hearings, the government is also part of the fraud. The Senate lawyer, Questadt, is in the pocket of Roth. Pat Geary, who is subtly muscled into the Corleone camp by Tom Hagen, puts on a fake persona of loving Italian-Americans whereas we know he despises them from his earlier encounter with Michael at Lake Tahoe. 

Michael may have had, however dim, the opportunity to escape into a legitimate (normal) life of beauty with Kay before the dominoes fell in the first film; but by the second film all that is left for him is to run the race of power and domination. And Al Pacino’s performance of Michael in The Godfather Part II is, by Burke’s definition, undoubtedly sublime. There is a dark allure, an almost demonic spirit, to Michael’s character as he battles Hyman Roth, beats Kay, and orders the murder of his brother Fredo.

But in Michael’s portrayal on screen for us, we see the end of the illusion of innocence and grace which flew around him in the first film. Michael’s ascent to power is also his unmasking as a demon in disguise. This, of course, was manifested at the end of The Godfather when he stood as godfather to Connie and Carlo’s son, renouncing Satan and all his works, while, in reality, embracing Satan. The baptism of Connie and Carlo’s son is really the baptism—the new birth—of Michael into a demonic agent of death (and how brilliantly shot this signifying scene was). Michael Corleone is but another character in a long list of corrupted American Adams (a common trope in American cultural artistry), men who start out with all the world as their stage but end up finding the American world of boundless opportunities no different than the fallen old world.

Vito Corleone, however, doesn’t fall from grace because his story charts his rise to power which never had the illusion of graceful escape as Michael did. Vito Corleone was a tragic and romantic character in the first film. That aura carried forward as we witnessed his family’s destruction in Sicily, his life in America, and his meteoric rise to power. Where Michael’s power is unambiguously sublime, Vito’s power is veiled precisely because of his anti-hero tragic romanticism. 

Michael had fallen into the demonic grip of power because he loved his father. Vito falls into the same demonic grip of power because he loved his father too, and, moreover, he loves his family. After all, upon murdering Don Fanucci in the midst of an ecstatic religious celebration with the Bread of Life and Reconciliation in the streets of Little Italy serving as juxtaposition—life and death—he returns to his family and tells the infant Michael that he loves him “very much.” The echoes of love, however broken and faint in the turbulence of murder, still offer an impression of the beautiful to the viewer that is otherwise absent in Michael’s pure lust for power. Because Vito’s life on screen is entirely surrounded by family, that light of beauty keeps us from seeing him in a purely dark light. In Michael’s arc, his family slowly fades away (and killed off by his own orders) which causes us to see him in the dark sublimity of power.

Beautiful Justice and Horrifying Revenge

Perhaps the most explicit reason Vito Corleone oscillates between the sublime and the beautiful is because of the question of justice that is posed in The Godfather films. While we know Don Corleone is a criminal lord, he is not portrayed as an explicitly evil man. He is flawed, yes, but also sympathetic. We like him. Why?

When Don Corleone rebuffs Bonasera’s request to have the thugs who beat his daughter killed, he tells the undertaker that what he seeks is not justice but murder—revenge. In that moment, Don Corleone presents himself as an arbiter of justice even in the world of the Mafioso. The Godfather wrestles with the fine line between justice and revenge. By situating itself in the closed world of the mafia, it constructs for itself a new moral paradigm: Don Corleone stands for moral uprightness and justice; the Corleone enemies stand for deceitful wheeling and dealing, murder, and immoral business of narcotics. In creating this paradigm for us right at the beginning of the film, this puts Don Corleone in a tragic and sympathetic light; so too does that tragic and sympathetic spirit rub off on Michael during the first half of the first film.

Vito Corleone, in both films, never has the shroud of possible justice torn away from him. He is brutally gunned down and nearly killed for refusing to get into the narcotics business. The “justice” that Michael subsequently seeks is governed by reaction to undeniable injustice and immorality: the attempted murder of Vito Corleone; the brutal killing of Sonny; the assassination of Apollonia (meant for him); the betrayal of Tessio. The attempted murder of Vito Corleone is what sparks this drama. We cannot help but have a certain feeling of endearment for a man who is a victim. How far is one willing to go to protect his papa?

Likewise, when introduced in The Godfather Part II, Vito has everything torn from him: His father is killed before the film starts, his brother shot offscreen, and his mother horrifyingly murdered in front of his eyes by Don Ciccio’s men. Vito’s ascent in the criminal underworld and his taking revenge against Ciccio is moved by a possible desire for justice that is sympathetic to us as the viewing audience—he is a victim. (Michael, by contrast, is never a victim.) 

The word justice is explicitly spoken in The Godfather, which helps to set the tone and create its own moral paradigm. In The Godfather Part II, revenge supplants justice. Don Ciccio wants to kill the young Vito Andolini because he may grow strong and want “revenge” later in life. Conversing with Frank Pentangeli in the old Corleone Family Estate in New York, Michael requests that Pentangeli help him “take [his] revenge.” Justice has evaporated from the discourse of The Godfather Part II. 

Despite the abrogation of justice in the lexicon of The Godfather Part II, we still internalize a sense of justice regarding the actions of Vito Corleone; we never internalize that same sense of justice regarding Michael because Michael explicitly says he’s taking his revenge. This is because we witness unambiguous crimes committed against Vito, especially in a weak and frail state. The fragility and delicacy that Burke said is associated with the beautiful surrounds Vito’s rise to power, thus creating the aesthetic dissonance that clouds his characterization and actions. While the same is true for Michael, Michael transcends that delicacy by the second film. Michael as at the height of his power when in conflict with Roth and his henchmen. 

Returning to the sublime, Burke also said the sublime has the tendency to create “some degree of horror” when encountering it. Horror, of course, is what we experience in Michael’s drive for revenge in The Godfather Part II. The feeling of horror and fear, which overwhelms us in the state of sublime ecstasy, ultimately avoids Vito in the sequel because we know how things will turn out for him; he will succeed in his ascent to becoming a criminal lord in New York. Michael’s fate, though we intuitively know he will come out on top, leaves us in the dark as to how. We do not know how Michael’s dark story will end, and this adds to the sensation of fear and horror in his storyline, especially as he descends into the madness of revenge.

Against our better judgements, we feel that Vito Corleone treads the path of justice—especially within the moral system of the mob. While we have those feelings, initially, for Michael in the first film, we have no illusions about the powerful grandeur of Michael in the second. Thus, we are more overwhelmed with that “degree of horror” when thrown into Michael’s storyline.

Justice and injustice, then, are aesthetic mediums in which we sympathize with characters that distort our relationship to them. We sympathize with Vito Corleone, Tom Hagen, and Kay Adams because we feel that injustice—in some form or another—has befallen them. We sympathize with the early Michael (and Connie) for the same reason. We grow in coldness to Michael (and Connie) because we no longer see them as victims of injustice but arbiters of their own hubris and vanity. While Fredo accidentally betrays Michael, we sympathize with Fredo because he is “weak” and “dumb.” Fredo’s fragility, that “delicacy” Burke spoke of as being innate to the beautiful, inoculates us from wanting Fredo to suffer in the same way we desire Sollozzo, Captain McCluskey, or Hyman Roth to get their comeuppance. We see Fredo as a pawn of others in a far more sinister game that he was incapable of seeing, let alone understand.

The beauty that resonates with us in The Godfather films is tied to an aesthetic sentiment of justice. The sublime that rides forth in the films is surrounded by the hissing whispers of bloodlust, murder, and revenge. In Vito, we wrestle with whether he is an agent of justice or revenge but experience him as a flawed—but ultimately just—man. In Michael, we see him devolve from a possible agent of justice to an emissary of pure revenge which, ultimately, isolates him. Vito Corleone is surrounded by his friends and family over the course of his character arc. He even dies playing with his grandson in his garden (in an atmosphere and environment of light and life). Michael goes from being surrounded by friends and family to lonely and isolated, eventually dying by himself at the conclusion of the third film.

The Sublime Experience 

Burke wrote his treatise on the sublime and the beautiful to investigate the human psychology of (and desire for) the sublime. While Burke clearly favored the beautiful, he thought there was a part of human nature that innately desires the sublime. Historically, the sublime was usually manifested in the form of religion: mystery, darkness, candles, chants, prayers, a God who unleashed a cataclysmic Flood, slayed the Egyptians, and appeared to Moses as a cloud of dust and smoke. Before urbanization and industrialization, the sublime could also be experienced in nature. The deep and dark woods of the earth, the roar of thunder and lightning, could instill in us that feeling of astonishment, awe, and horror. 

With the onset of modernity, the sublime has receded further and further in our lives. Religion is now dominated by kumbaya sentimentalism. Nature has been eroded by scientific conquest; once sublime landscapes are now devoured by urban sprawl and squalor. 

Schiller argued that aesthetic states and experiences could liberate man. As we are increasingly enchained by an aesthetic of emptiness, neither sublime nor beautiful, cinema has filled that void—sometimes. The Godfather films, in this respect, have become manifested mediums in which we can experience the sublime and the beautiful—but most especially the sublime. The sublime experience of The Godfather, among many other reasons, is why we love the film and why it has endured and will continue to endure. In the aesthetic experience of Coppola’s masterpieces, we experience that cathartic desire for the sublime in the midst of aesthetic nothingness. There is, if the reader permits me to infuse the sublime and beautiful together, a haunting beauty and dark allure to The Godfather. Therefore, contra Burke, there is a terrifying beauty in which the sublime and the beautiful merge together as one. Few films have achieved that synthesis as perfectly—intentionally or otherwise—as The Godfather.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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